Interned Swiss seek redress for childhood plight
Hundreds of Swiss citizens locked away in their teens even though they never committed a crime are demanding compensation for the internment they endured for adolescent misbehaviour.
For nearly a century until the practice was halted in 1981, some 25,000 youngsters in Switzerland, were jailed by local authorities for what was perceived as anti-social behaviour, according to a researcher. This ranged from rebelliousness to being drunk.
Last month, after nearly 30 years of campaigning by women victims, Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf delivered an official apology for the "administrative internment" of minors, which evaded the judicial system.
But some of the victims say they need another step to secure closure.
"If I explain that I was in prison at the age of 17 for my education, no one believes me," said Gina Rubeli, who was jailed in 1970 in central Switzerland, at the Hindelbank prison for women.
"Yet I had not committed any offence," she added. "You suddenly found you were with thieves, murderers and hardened criminals.
"We didn't know why we were there and when we would get out," she explained.
Rubeli, now 58, spent much of her youth trying to escape from the clutches of a troubled family.
After running away and several attempts at suicide, local authorities interned her for a year.
Dominique Strebel, a lawyer and author of a book on the issue, said about 25,000 youngsters fell foul of the practice of administrative internment.
From 1884 to 1981, youngsters were locked away "for 'laziness, negligence or indecency'... and not for criminal offences," Strebel explained.
The sentences were handed down by local officials. But they were amateurs, according to Strebel, who had little notion of educational needs and whose legal grounds were "blurred" despite claims that they were rooted in common law.
In his book, "Weggesperrt" ('Locked away'), Strebel tells the moving stories of teenagers, often from underprivileged backgrounds, whose desire to live up their youth turned into a prison nightmare.
"When a young working class woman became pregnant, she was imprisoned and she was treated like she was nothing. It was brutal," said Ursula Biondi, who ended up in Hindelbank prison while she was pregnant.
Biondi was beaten by her father and sexually abused at the age of 15 by another man.
She fled to Italy with her boyfriend but was returned to Switzerland and interned in Hindelbank when she was 17.
Her child was taken away into care after she gave birth and only returned after a months-long legal battle.
Strebel said attitudes started to change after Switzerland ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1974. The practice was brought to a halt seven years later.
On September 10, the federal justice minister and regional officials made their public apology.
"Intead of understanding, human warmth and support, these youngsters, who needed protection, found rejection and isolation and suffered undeserved punishment," said Guido Marbret, the head of regional government human rights body.
Biondi acknowledged that the public apology had finally brought her some relief.
"Before I always had this sense of anger, it was what drove me, what saved me," she explained.
"But many died," after suffering physical and psychological harm, Biondi added.
Rubeli founded an association to defend the rights of those who were interned.
"Many victims had to pay the cost of internment. They can now claim that money," she explained.
Rubeli is campaigning for a parliamentary commission to look into the still shadowy episode in modern Swiss history and to ensure compensation for "forced labour."
© 2010 AFP